|The view from the top of Table Mountain.|
After leaving Table Mountain we power walked behind our intrepid and gifted leader Tony to take the Ferry to Robben Island. This part of the day is the focus for my contribution to this blog.
I have vivid memories of both Apartheid and Nelson Mandela dating back to earlier in my career in New York City. One of my managers emigrated from South Africa and our large international company was barred from bidding certain public projects because they still had a business in South Africa that did business with the national government there.
I also remember watching the news as the riots erupted in South Africa and wondered what a prisoner identified in the news as a terrorist would do to that country if released. I had a typically limited perspective that was formed by reading my local newspaper (yes, a real paper newspaper!) 25 or so years ago. Those two factors helped me pay closer attention to what happened once Mandela was released, and later as he helped South Africa emerge from their revolution.
In 2009, I started my journey to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church by joining Christian Life Prison Ministry in the Philadelphia Prisons. Serving God way outside of my comfort zone opened my eyes and my heart to the true power of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. I have been blessed beyond all understanding learning how to love from the men that lead that ministry.
Our guide was a former political prisoner imprisoned in the 1980’s for sabotage. His accent was difficult to follow at times during his prepared remarks. I asked him several times to help me understand his name and how to spell it. Ultimately, he just smiled and said to call him 'Mcungo.'
He was asked by a member of the group if the sparse bedding displayed during the presentation was enough when it was cold. Mcungo struggled a little to answer and stopped himself and said, “We survived. It was terrible cold but the human body can endure very much discomfort.”
After visiting the prison, our bus driver gave us a tour of the island. He was not a prisoner and tried valiantly to get us to remember his name. His good humor and dignified explanations and circumstances moved all of us. We saw the quarry where the political prisoners broke limestone into rocks and then into dust.
I will never forget a short conversation I had with Dick Pry on the cruelty of life on Robben Island in full view of one of the most beautiful cities on earth. We could not imagine what went through their minds seeing that and knowing their families where there and cut off from all visits and even letters for years at a time for so many prisoners.
|The view of Capetown from Robben Island.|
Those topics deserve understanding beyond my capabilities of a one-time blogger. For more information I recommend Mandela’s book, titled "Long Walk to Freedom," and "Bring Me My Machinegun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma," by Alec Russell.
We traveled back to Capetown on a very fast dual hull ferry watching seals and thousands of birds follow their instincts. We broke up into a few groups for dinner and wandering on Victoria Wharf to watch more seals, an incredible sunset and absorbed astonishing beauty and affluence. Many of us reflected on the contrast of this night and compared it to many of the experiences of our trip. According to Bring me my Machine Gun, South Africa has the largest disparity between the rich and the poor. Each of us struggled in our own way to balance our own affluence with the tremendous poverty we witnessed during the trip.
The enduring impact of this trip will be different for each of us. It will take significant time to digest all of the experiences. I went on this trip with a very strong need to hold the bars of Mandela’s cell and smell the concrete and dampness there. I had hopes that I would understand how this man emerged from imprisonment with a heart to heal instead of vengeance.
How this man and his colleagues emerged from Robben Island to choose forgiveness provides evidence of God’s abundant grace. Nelson Mandela virtually won the first free election in South Africa by acclimation and chose reconciliation, not vengeance. After his election, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and (most often) pardon many of the white oppressors that tortured or even killed blacks during Apartheid.
I treasured the opportunity I had to absorb this place. The fruit of God’s work in South Africa is clearly more powerful than the evil that dwelled on this island. I am thankful to God that I can see modern day evidence of a man that could not merely survive 27 years of prison and abuse, but grow in strength and dignity to choose reconciliation over revenge. Light over darkness. The triumph of the human spirit made possible in these circumstances could only come from God.